HOOVER, Ala. (WBRC) - As the coronavirus spread throughout the globe, one aspect was clear from the very beginning: its devastating effect on the elderly. Because of the age of residents and their close proximity to one another, nursing homes and retirement communities have been especially vulnerable to outbreaks.
In order to protect residents from the virus, Galleria Woods in Hoover, Alabama closed its doors to visitors on March 13 and has not reopened. Only residents and staff members are allowed past the entrance door.
For nearly four months, no residents tested positive for the coronavirus. Three employees tested positive, after each case, all the exposed residents and employees were tested and those results were negative, Executive Director Lynda Sullivan said.
However, two residents, a couple, tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday, June 6. Sullivan said the couple are self-quarantining for 14 days.
“We will continue to provide daily wellness checks and continue to diligently follow all federal, state, and local agency guidance,” Sullivan said in an email on Monday, June 8.
Before each shift, employees are required to check their temperature and oxygen levels, then answer screening questions about their travel and any COVID-19 symptoms.
Galleria Woods offers three options for residents based on their health and needs: independent living, assisted living and a skilled nursing facility.
Independent living residents are still allowed to leave the facility, but are screened upon re-entry. If they go somewhere with more than five people present, they must quarantine in their own apartment for 14 days.
"It’s incredible the number of changes just to keep us alive,” Sara Schauer said.
She and her husband of 65 years, Hamp, moved to Galleria Woods eight years ago and both serve as Ambassadors, helping new residents become acquainted with the community.
“The people over here are unbelievably friendly, always somebody to talk to, things to do. Just a great place to live under normal circumstances,” she said.
Now, residents are still allowed to see one another and go to some common areas, but must wear a mask and keep six feet of distance. All meals are delivered to individual apartments and rooms, instead of being served in a dining hall.
Chris Ward, 97, says she misses eating her meals with friends.
“Now I can’t see my family. I miss that the most, not having lunch with friends. And also, we had a lot of different special programs in the community room that we can’t go to anymore,” Ward said.
With so many activities canceled for safety reasons, the staff at Galleria Woods have had to find creative ways for residents to socialize.
They’ve organized outdoor concerts which residents can listen to from their balconies or in chairs spaced apart, “grab and go” events offering a special snack and drink that can be picked up, socially distanced exercise classes and even outdoor Bingo games, which Hamp Schauer recently enjoyed.
“That was great, I missed the time slot but still played a couple of games with the people that held it, and I won a box of popcorn,” Hamp Schauer said.
Since no family members could visit for Mother’s Day, the staff signed Mother’s Day cards and delivered them with a rose and truffle, Executive Director Lynda Sullivan said.
“Hosting the outdoor concerts, exercise classes and the Grab-N-Go events has helped with our residents still feeling connected to one another and the staff,” she added.
Members from Church of the Highlands recently built a Plexiglas wall in a part of the building so family members can safely see and talk to their loved ones without risking any exposure to the virus.
Despite the two positive COVID-19 cases, the Plexiglas wall will still be available for residents to see their family.
“We will continue to allow family to visit their loved ones behind the Plexiglas, following all screening protocols, CDC guidelines, and by appointment only,” Sullivan said.
Galleria Woods is also giving residents weekly community updates, which Sullivan said has helped ease anxiety. After the initial disappointment about the restrictions, Sullivan said the residents have adapted to the new measures.
“Once our residents understood that this was a recommendation from the CDC and our Alabama Department of Public Health, they made adjustments and have been very appreciative of the steps we have taken to secure their safety,” she said.
Hank Whitehead, 96, has been a resident of Galleria Woods since 2007 and is now in the assisted living area.
“Activities are pretty minimal right now. But I am pleased that they have kept the virus out of the facility. We’ve almost had nothing. Very restrictive about who comes and who goes,” he said.
His daughter Ann, whom he affectionately calls “Super Boss number 1” (his physical therapist is Super Boss number 2, he joked), has organized “milkshake parties” so that she and other friends could visit her dad safely.
“Ann started this by getting together several couples from church who I was close to, before the pandemic. She ordered a dozen milkshakes, got church people to meet her over here. I can go up and down the hall but I can’t get out of my wing. I can go out on the second story porch. The church folks are all on the ground level. She had milkshakes for everybody,” Whitehead said.
They’ve had around four or five “milkshake parties” since the pandemic, and Hank says he enjoys being able to talk to his daughter and friends from the balcony.
Residents are also using technology to connect with each other, friends and family, and to order groceries. Sara Schauer uses Shipt for her groceries and said Walgreens delivers medicine twice a week to the community.
Galleria Woods staff are helping residents find ways to use technology to talk with their loved ones. Sara Schauer said they’ve been a “tremendous help” with setting up Zoom calls and helping residents use apps like FaceTime.
“We are providing an opportunity for our family members to use technology to keep in touch with their family members. For the residents who may not have a device that allows them to Facetime, we set up calls with our iPads, so no one is left out,” Sullivan said.
Chris Ward says she enjoys playing the online game “Words with Friends” with Sara Schauer, whom she met while playing cards several years ago.
“I stay in my apartment a lot. I do enjoy playing games on the iPad, I play Words with Friends with Sara and other friends. And I also enjoy getting telephone calls from friends since we can’t visit,” Ward said.
And despite all of the changes, Galleria Woods is still welcoming new residents.
“We have had several independent living move-ins early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Both had to follow particular guidelines and we provided wellness checks for them for 14 days after their move-in. Many wanted to move-in because they felt Galleria Woods would provide a safe environment than their homes,” Sullivan said.
There’s still not a timeline for when Galleria Woods will open to allow visitors once again. Sullivan said the state and county will have to show a 14-day average decline in COVID-19 cases before they can move through their Three Stage Plan to re-open. She says the CDC and Alabama Department of Public Health will determine when they’re able to reopen.
Whenever visitors are allowed again, Chris Ward is excited about a visit from her daughter in California, which had to be postponed because of the virus.
“I’m looking forward to my daughter coming and spending a week with me and maybe we can get out of this place for awhile," she said, laughing. "I'd just like to get out and see the sights."
Sara Schauer said once it’s safe, she’s looking forward to “just getting out and mixing with people, playing bridge again, and seeing family.”
“I’m hopeful, I don’t know when the quarantine will be lifted, probably when they come up with a vaccine. Never did expect this, but of course nobody else did either,” she said.
Sara and Hamp Schauer are the grandparents of the author’s husband.